Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Accidental Death Of A Plumber: How Mario became Nintendo's bank manager

Super Mario 3DLand has been getting a lot of coverage this week after Nintendo's 3DS press conference. While it looks as much fun as any new Mario game, the sight of the plumber in his returning Tanuki suit proved revelatory for reasons other than the no-doubt sterling gameplay. To be precise, it got me thinking about nostalgia and the way Nintendo use it as a marketing tool in many of their big .

When Super Mario Galaxy 2 was announced, a big deal was made of Yoshi's reappearance. Yet it was hardly such a rare thing as Nintendo would like its fans to think: Yoshi has appeared like clockwork in every second Mario release since the N64 era: he was non-playable in Super Mario 64, before Mario was allowed to take the saddle in Super Mario Sunshine. On the DS, New Super Mario Bros was Yosh-free, but  his appearance in the Wii sequel was heavily publicised. The same goes for Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel.

It's also worth noting that both Sunshine and NSMB Wii used Yoshi sparingly and unlike his Super Mario World debut, where a number of levels were very Yoshi-centric, there seems to have been little reason to include him other than as a more fan-friendly power-up. Kind of like the Tanuki suit, which has had to be retrofitted – no more flying, the leaf giving Mario the full suit rather than just the tail and ears – to not break the rules of the new game.
There's something strangely offputting about the way that the Tanuki suit has been central to Nintendo's publicity for Super Mario 3DLand, even when it would seem to have been shoehorned into the game rather than evolved as a natural requirement of the new style of play. It even seems a little cynical, a worrying affirmation that Nintendo are putting marketing first and gameplay second. It's not as though the company haven't always been conscious of the value of their assets. What I do find interesting is how it demonstrates how the role of Mario and his iconography has evolved over the course of his and Nintendo's inextricably shared histories.

It's often said that we remember the best parts of our childhood through rose-tinted lenses. While I don't quite agree with this - just because our tastes have evolved doesn't mean that things from our childhoods weren't honestly enjoyed when first experienced and in some cases even hold up now - it is true that when things remind us of things we've loved in times gone by, that nostalgia can be enough to shroud faults that we might otherwise have judged more harshly. The more I think about, the more strongly Nintendo seem to depend on this in their big franchise games.

I remember being startled at quite how much of Super Mario Galaxy was recycled, from enemies and power-ups to the usual world themes (ice, haunted-house, battleships, volcanoes etc) and how much of the game involved the player being surrounded by many of the icons they will have grown up with. The game undeniably puts an ingenious twist on the traditional platformer, which Mario has more or less monopolised at this point, but I also had a number of issues with the game, chiefly its inconsistent level design, unexciting new and not taking full advantage of the countless possibilities of its big idea. (The sequel did significantly better on all these scores). Would another game, free of the beloved Mario branding, have been received with such adoration and had these issues so readily ignored?

Like Mickey Mouse, who is just as iconic for the animation industry as Mario is for gaming, the character's modern use as a safety net of sorts - a symbol for good, reliable old nanny Nintendo - seems entirely at odds with what made him popular at his conception. Mickey Mouse, as Warren Spector was busy reminding us when he launched Epic Mickey, used to be mischievous and even controversial, accused of encouraging misbehaviour from young viewers.

Nowadays he's all smiles and sweetness, more important for his nostalgic connotations than as a character. Mario, whether jumping into blocks, go-karting, playing baseball or golf or self-satirising in RPGs (fabulous humour for long-time fans yet incoherent to newcomers), is increasingly less of a character than an embodiment of Nintendo in values and formula. Interesting to note that Epic Mickey, whose star character is less beloved of videogame players, had its review scores docked for a wonky camera, while Mario seemed to suffer no such indignity for having the same problem (recognised by most players) in Galaxy.

But Mario, even moreso than Mickey, founded his reputation on destroying formula, on a subversive streak of anarchism and free spirit that bucked the trend of a videogame industry drowning under a deluge of identikit, horribly made shovelware. When he famously jumped on top of the screen in the second level of Super Mario Bros, it wasn't just a thrilling piece of postmodernist design, it was a declaration of intent and characterisation, Nintendo giving the world a character who was ready to break all established forms of thinking and embrace gaming as a world where anything was possible.

In that first game, when you expected a character to run along the screen, Mario ran above it. In the third game, where most characters were still running from left to right, Mario was going backwards and upwards, playing not just a level but an overworld as well. With Super Mario World, probably the height of Mario's anarchism, the overworld became the game in a turnaround of Baudrillardian proportions. The aim was no longer to play through the levels, but rather to discover exits to new ones concealed across the vast map. Then there was that 'flying under the finishing post' moment, as perfect a piece of lateral thinking as running along the top of the screen. While Super Mario 64 relied on a lot of familiar images from the series, it used them to make players feel safe in a world where everything else, from the purpose of playing (collect stars rather than reach a goal; explore rather than progress) to the two extra dimensions, required new ways of playing and thinking.

Compare those games to the likes of New Super Mario Bros and its console sequel, both of which devolved the 2D series back to a state before the advancements of even Super Mario 3 in the aim of providing entertainment through nostalgia rather than gameplay. NSMB Wii's four player mode was cleverly balanced and showed Nintendo's experience in giving players opportunities to indulge their own naughty streaks, yet gave no such freedom to Mario himself, stuck running through a mobius strip of the same old levels and sights. Perhaps it was a sign that Nintendo were conscious that the Mario's impact and the glorious surreality of his world (observed objectively, the Mushroom Kingdom makes Lewis Carroll's imagination look like an accounting sheet) were dulled by familiarity and it was more important that players were able to make their own subversions than have Mario do it for them.

Yet as someone who grew up with Mario, loving every moment that he ate mushrooms to grow big and turned into a raccoon to fly, it's hard not to look at the recent iterations in the franchise and even amidst all the fun, for the games are still undeniably magnificent fun, wish that some hint of the old plumber's subversive streak would spark up behind those flat eyes and show me one of those unexpected, brilliant, deranged sights that we used to share together.

Like the return of a stripy raccoon tail from a leaf or the well-timed appearances of a certain dinosaur steed, Mario and his games will be forever welcome on my television, but it's becoming harder to suppress the feeling that Nintendo see them more as commodities than canvases for experimentation and breaking new ground. Each goomba, koopa, boo and bullet still induce the same wide grins as in childhood, but my greatest nostalgia is for the days when my companion on those adventures was an anarchist rather than a bank manager.



Ismoísta said...

I can't picture Miyamoto saying to his team "we need to put the tanuki in our next Mario game, people miss it, you know? Know let us think in a gameplay mechanic good it."

They could have used the tanuki nostalgia card in other less nostalgic Mario game. I believe they thought about the best way the 3DS would enhance the Mario gameplay, then figured the tanuki could work and add it. Not the other way.

And, hey, Mario have always been just the container of certain needed abilities. The very little personality he has is just an extra putted for obvious reasons.

Ismoísta said...

Oh boy, how many mistakes I made?
Sorry: English is not my mother language.

Xander Markham said...

Don't worry about your English, Ismoísta, it's perfectly understandable - certainly better than I could do in Spanish, that's for sure!

Unfortunately we'll never know what really went through Miyamoto's mind in putting the Tanuki suit into the game, it just seems weird to me that they'd make so many changes to fit it into this new game, rather than creating something new.

Thanks for your comment!